Revisiting the year 1957 in jazz is a trip to when melodies could be hummed, when small ensembles could make grand statements with the music, and when the rhythms made us tap our feet. Bassist and leader Ben Fox’s new work, Ben’s Bop, features young artists from the New Orleans region who want to give the era a big hug, and in so doing, remind of us why this music swings in a timeless manner. From the swift adventure of “Tea for Two” to the more lyrical “Remember” to the bluesy “This Here,” these tracks are hot, slick and pretty.
Fox is a self-named “historical performance enthusiast” who, with this album, has gotten into the nuts and bolts and then some of the Blue Note aesthetic; not just in its melodies and changes, but in the technology of the time, including the recording equipment and what made the mid-century sound so unique and palpable. It translates 110% in Ben’s Bop.
Personnel includes Ben Fox – bass; Tanner Guss – drums; Yoshitaka “Z2” Tsuji – piano; and Marty Peters – tenor sax.
What turned you on to playing bass?
I started out on French horn, and my middle school band director said you couldn’t play French horn in jazz band. I took up bass because I figured every band needs a bass player.
Do you remember the first time you heard the Blue Note aesthetic and what was the song?
I remember my dad playing the album Red Garland’s Piano with Paul Chambers and Art Taylor in the house a lot as a kid. I always loved how that band sounded. All of those tracks were killer! Also Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was a major album for me and my high school buddies.
What is it about Rudy Van Gelder’s sound that to you is so appealing? Do you feel you achieve that here?
There’s definitely a mystique about the Van Gelder sound. You read comments from the time with people saying he allowed distortion into the horns or he intentionally muffled the piano and bass, that it was unlifelike on purpose. There is still this idea floating around that the sound on a jazz record should be a clear and uncolored version of what’s being played. But Van Gelder didn’t feel that way, and he produced some of the most iconic recordings from the period. It’s “wrong” but also kind of better than real life, in a very 1950s way.
Do you think there’s a nostalgia for that mid-century vibe?
I’m not sure “nostalgia” is exactly the right word but I do think there is interest! I think people now are looking to the past for a context for the crazy stuff that’s happening now in the present. There does seem to be a desire to take off those rose-colored glasses and look at things like all the blatant racism and lack of women’s rights, LGBTQ issues, etc. But people were still people back then. And the art that came out of the ’50s is still very good and relevant!
I think people are also very open to just vibing on stuff right now, and jazz from that period was in a very vibey place. Lindy Hop and greaser culture, while more popular ten or twenty years ago, still seems to be going strong. And I still meet musicians who use 1950s slang like “cat,” “hip” and “dig.”
Up until the 2000s, I think jazz musicians were still trying to only be cutting-edge, but I’m meeting more and more young people who are excited about that mid period and also earlier periods. People want a connection; they want to know the whole story of the music. So it’s not exactly nostalgia, but it is this feeling that old things are still relevant.
Even though this music is now 60-70 years old, if you don’t check it out, it’s like starting a TV show on episode six. The bluegrass and Americana communities already know this; they’ve been making “traditional” bands and albums for years. But jazz musicians haven’t tended to take that kind of thing seriously until recently. (I’m making the distinction here between mainstream jazz musicians and the traditional revival players, who are very common down here. They’ll tell you jazz is 100 years old, which it definitely is. But they also try to stop the history around 1945.)
How long was Ben’s Bop in the making? What were production highlights or lowlights? Favorite track, if you have one?
It took a long time lol. We recorded almost a year ago in April of 2022. The studio did a great job tracking, but I was after something very specific with the sound. All the mixing engineers I spoke to about the project were enthusiastic but they all said something like, “Yeah, I’d love to try to re-create those sounds. I’ve never tried it before.” Then I heard that Jon Atkinson was moving to town from Virginia. I’d heard that he fixed old amps and audio equipment and when I asked him about the project, he said unprompted, “I’d love to do it. I grew up listening to those old Blue Note albums.” He knew the sound inside and out from fixing all the gear it had been recorded on! Some people have the gear, but not everyone knows how to use it, and often it just sits in people’s studios. So we began the somewhat arduous process of re-equalizing all of the modern mics to match the vintage gear, and then we mixed it through the correct vintage eqs and compressors that Jon had.
Do you have a favorite track?
If I had to pick one, it would be “Ugetsu.” I love everyone’s energy on that one. Z2 [Yoshitaka “Z2” Tsuji] especially really brings a lot of energy to that piece. Of course, he brings a lot of energy to everything he plays. The switch between the tight hits at the beginning and the open interlude sections was really fun to play with that band. Tanner is always super easy to play with. Everyone was real present and interacted beautifully, I thought.
How did you choose the musicians in your ensemble and what does each one bring to the overall character of your music?
All the musicians play traditional jazz here in New Orleans. In my mind, that kept things from sounding too modern. We’ve all spent a lot of time investigating the source material and playing with older musicians who also played with older musicians who were alive at the time. Tanner, Z2 and I all were playing on Saturday nights at Fritzel’s Jazz Pub on Bourbon Street with some older horn players who kept us in line! And Marty has his own excellent traditional jazz band, Marty Peters and the Party Meters, as well as a jump blues project, The Jump Hounds (more 1950s music!)
Do you have original music here?
I intentionally didn’t compose music for this album. I wanted to play standards because there were a lot of albums from the time period of just standards! The tunes became standards later, and of course, they were pop music at the time. But take for instance that Red Garland album I mentioned earlier: there are no originals at all and it sounds awesome. I have another project of originals coming out soon, though!
Advice to musicians just starting out?
Practice, practice, practice!
For more information, visit https://www.benfox.co.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2023 Debbie Burke
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